This week, the House and Senate cleared a bill to finalize fiscal year 2013 spending. In some respects, the bill was the best we could expect for health services research. It provided a small boost to the National Institutes of Health’s base budget and held funding flat for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Of course, it didn’t cancel sequestration’s five percent across the board cut to these and other domestic programs, but that’s a topic for another blog!) However, the devil is in the details. The spending bill carried with it a troubling amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) that represents the first shot in the war on social science—with many skirmishes to fight in the coming year and years to come. The amendment:

"Prohibits the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States."

According to the American Political Science Association, “The amendment places unprecedented restriction on the national research agenda by declaring the political science study of democracy and public policy out of bounds. The amendment allows only political science research that promotes ‘national security or the economic interests of the United States.’” And this amendment is actually an improvement over the original, which would’ve eliminated funding for political science research altogether and transferred the funding it to the National Cancer Institute. Nonetheless, the passage of this amendment represents a devastating blow to the integrity of the scientific process and ushers in a new era of congressional research micromanagement. We saw the warning signs last year, as the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over health spending proposed to terminate AHRQ, ban health economics research at NIH, ban all comparative effectiveness research across the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and earmarked increased funding for basic science at NIH. Just last week, a failed amendment offered by Senator Harkin—which represented the House and Senate’s negotiated health funding levels for FY 2013—would have avoided the proposed ban on health economics across NIH but would have discontinued funding for health economics in the NIH “Common Fund,” currently one of the only sources of funding for R-01 grants in health economics. Several Members of Congress have spoken recently about their intent to redirect funding from “soft sciences” to “hard sciences” such as biomedical research. According to these policymakers, it’s not about science per se; it’s about priorities in this post-sequestration age of austerity. As one congressional staffer framed it, “What do you say to a person who is suffering from pancreatic cancer? That we can't spend more on your disease because we have to spend money on [social science]? ” The passage of this amendment sets a dangerous precedent, making all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure. Indeed, it is a “remarkable embarrassment for the world’s most exemplary democracy,” as the American Political Science Association notes. AcademyHealth is collaborating closely with our partners in the social science and health economics community to raise awareness about the value of our research and the risks of impeding scientific freedom. We’ll be calling upon you soon to help us fight this battle. Want to do more? Show your willingness to speak up for HSR by joining the AcademyHealth Advocacy Interest Group. You can also check out our free webinars for members on communicating with policymakers, AcademyHealth’s advocacy priorities, and more.